Economic instability in Latin America and periodic crises, such as the Argentine Great Depression of 1998-2002, are among the driving engines of immigration to the United States. In this interview, Elsa Méndez discusses her decision to leave her home in Mendoza, Argentina in search of a better future for her son in Charleston, South Carolina. While difficult, her transition was made easier through the kindness of family and strangers.
Marina López: How old were you when you got married?
Elsa Méndez: I was twenty-one, almost twenty-two, Alberto was twenty-one. Alberto was twenty turning twenty-one so they had to sign for us to get married. Yes, he was a kid—we were kids, but the difference between a man and a woman is that the woman matures before. But, I could still say that—we always say if we could go back and live what we have lived, we would go back and do everything exactly as we did it; we regret nothing. And so, we came here with our baby in our arms; Albertito was one and a half years old.
ML: And you told me that things were difficult. When you said that things were difficult, were they difficult because of the whirlwind of things you had personally happen to you?
EM: No, apart from us having nothing, I mean, we got married and went to live in Alberto’s grandmother’s house. She lived all alone, and after that we went to live in—no, in my mom’s house, and then my sister bought a house, Lucy, and she lends us this house. The situation was difficult, I mean, to the point of buying the essentials; sometimes there wasn’t even money for the baby’s diapers, and it really was an unbearable situation. Alberto went out and worked to provide the basics, the essentials, and then Anita was already here.
ML: Anita is your sister?
EM: My sister. She was already, I believe like one or two years living here -
ML: What year was this Elsa?
EM: We’re in 2012, in 2000, 2001 or 2002?
ML: 2001, 2002, so she came before the towers?
EM: Yes, before.
EM: Before, we were here when it happened.
ML: And, she, Anita was here; was there anyone else who was here? Or just Anita?
EM: Yes, first Anita came, and then my brother-in-law Claudio travelled, but they went to New York. They decided to go and live in New York, so when it happened—in reality the idea was mine. I was a little stressed about the situation, and I wrote a letter to Anita, seeking the opportunity that would help us come.
ML: What was it that you heard of the United States that you said, “Wow, I’m going there!?” What were the things you started to fantasize about, to dream about? Why did the United States represent an opportunity for you and your family?
EM: It was an opportunity. In reality I should say that it was on a crazy whim that I got to come; it was nothing I planned. I knew that it was the United States. Here I could work, and I could earn, I could live—
ML: I would ask, and you knew this because, Anita told you? Because you had friends who made comments? Why?
EM: Yes, that's why. Because they said everything was fantastic—it was how they painted it. Also it was like—to come to the United States, it was like the unreachable country, or it was like the rich man’s dream, nothing more. And then—
ML: You mean, as tourists?
EM: Yes, as tourists and later as someone who came to work and earn good money. So it was a spectacular opportunity for each one of us to come to what was like an excellently proclaimed advertisement.
ML: Did you all ever think of going anywhere else?
ML: You know that in our country [Argentina] there are people, who think about Spain, think about Italy, they think of other places; did you guys ever fantasize of another place?
EM: I never fantasized of going anywhere.
ML: It was a whim. Did you think when you came that the massive economic crisis in Argentina was finally over, with the fall of President [Fernando] de la Rúa’s government, and with the six presidents we had in one week? Had that already happened, or no?
EM: No. It was [Carlos] Menem I believe at that time, right?
ML: Oh okay—so none of the big economic crisis had happened yet?
EM: No, I believe it was just starting.
EM: When they started to sell all of the things in Argentina, everything.
ML: Ok, and so you took up on a whim.
EM: Yes, it was a whim.
ML: How soon did you decide to come?
EM: I believe it was a month, in less than one month.
ML: In a month.
ML: What was it that you had to do in this month?
EM: Well, I wrote a letter and I told my husband, “If Anita answers us, we’re going.” If I try to go back and remember, I think I only remember the moment when I wrote the letter. And, then I came here.
ML: You don’t remember what all happened in this month?
EM: I think something happened in my brain.
EM: I don’t know what it was. I think that I cancelled it out because it is so strong.
ML: You don’t remember what you said to your family? You don’t remember what you told Alberto’s family?
EM: I do not remember the moment in which I told them. I don’t remember the moment I told my mom; I don’t remember telling her. I do remember the moment in the airport, and when I arrived here.
ML: Do you remember—even though you don’t remember the moment you told your mom—do you remember your family’s opinion of your decision?
EM: No, I don’t remember. I believe my mother always supports us in the decisions we make together, even though I think that—I don’t know, I think the decision killed her.
ML: She basically put up with it.
EM: Yes, she put up with it.
ML: How old was little Alberto when you came?
EM: A year and a half.
ML: So you made all these decisions, while having a baby in your arms?
ML: Learning to be a mom.
ML: Where did you get the money from to travel?
EM: Anita sent it to me. First Alberto would come—this was the idea—and then, Alberto came first. And Anita made the effort and sent us the money for the two of us.
ML: In order for you both to come.
EM: Yes, we were going to separate, and that was what cost us the most. And—well, from there she said she would send the money for both of us. I always say God used Anita for me to get here.
Marina López: And was Anita already living here in Charleston or was she somewhere else?
Elsa Méndez: No, Anita was already here.
ML: Anita was already in Charleston.
EM: Yes, he went to get her. The truth is that she came here with two doctors who brought her and passed her off to—well, unspeakable things. And Rubén searched for her and brought her here.
ML: And she was in another state, right?
EM: She was in Louisiana.
ML: And he brought her here. When you contacted her by writing her a letter she was already here?
EM: She was here.
ML: She was already here, ok.
EM: She was finally here.
ML: So when you guys arrived, where was it you guys arrived?
EM: Anita had rented a trailer for us.
ML: You all had your little place?
EM: Yes, she had rented a trailer for us, and we had no idea it was a trailer. And I think I remember when I saw it I said, “But this is a bus.” (Laughs) “Oh my God, Alberto.” Anita had gotten it all beautiful. She bought little Alberto a bed. She had done everything in reality.
ML: Before arriving at your trailer, where did you go? How did you make your journey from Mendoza to where?
EM: I went Mendoza—Santiago, Santiago—New York, New York—Charleston.
ML: Do you remember your impressions of New York or Charleston in the airports?
EM: I think my nerves were so bad that all I was worried about was that the plane didn’t crash and that we were safe. (Laughs)
ML: Was that the first time you guys had travelled in an airplane?
EM: No, I had been on one before, but I have a small fear of heights. I have gone from Chile to Argentina to Mendoza—and well, to cross the mountains when the passage is closed, we have to take an airplane.
ML: What were the first things, the first signs that made you realize you were in a different place? Beyond the language spoken by the people, but the things that gave you the impression, “Wow, this is different.”
EM: It may seem dumb, but the enormity of things, everything so big, in size and everything, a sachet of milk was a gallon of milk.
ML: A sachet of milk, what else? Tell me, what other things?
EM: A packet of butter—I don’t know, a packet of a kilogram of butter, everything was in larger size. I don’t know, the distances seemed enormous. And we didn’t have a car, so we had to walk. And I said, “My God, this is—." In Argentina we didn’t have a car either, but I got around easily on the bus.
ML: How was it that you did what you did—you arrived at—you had your angel Anita here, who prepared the trailer and the little bed for Alberto, but how was it that you started working? Because you had to take care of yourselves once you arrived.
EM: Actually my mom was the one who—well, I’ll say it was my mom who gave me the money to come. My family made the enormous effort to send me, she brought me—at the time she gave me five hundred dollars, and it was gone in two weeks, three weeks. I spent the money, and Alberto didn’t have a job. And so we didn’t know what to do. But always—well, I always say that God—I am a very faithful person—he puts the right people in your life at the right moment. There was a pair of Americans who greatly welcomed us. Glenda, June, and Den were the first American people who extended their hands to us.
ML: How did you meet them?
EM: They approached—well, as I had the habit of going outside and sitting by the door, like in Mendoza, but the United States—they passed by. They greeted me, and so I greeted them. And the children, they approached little Alberto, and they brought—they were kind, I’ve got to say, the first people I met here were very nice. They brought us toys. They brought us groceries, I believe. They were Glenda and June. They came up and started to—they brought dictionaries to try to communicate with me and with Alberto. Alberto is very sociable, so we then became friends, and they helped us a ton.
So I, with no knowledge of English, explained to her that my husband needed to work. How did I do it? I don’t know, I guess with the dictionary in hand. And the next door neighbor—I remember he had a slot in his blinds, and I told my husband, “Alberto, this guy seems crazy because he is always looking out the window.” And he is the one who gave a job to my husband. Glenda and June were friends of Den.
ML: Den, the one who spied through his window.
EM: Den who spied through his window, and when we met him, we met another person sent from God. And I say this, because he without knowing us, without being our friend, found a job for Alberto.
ML: What type of work was it?
EM: Alberto didn’t know how to do much more than silk screening. He took him to do carpentry, and he told him—Alberto told him he didn’t know how to do much. But he was ready to learn, so he left with him in the truck. I remember this day very clearly. And so, there he worked with him, and they did—we became great friends, he didn’t have any family here and so we became his family and he became a part of ours, an excellent person. I cleaned his trailer. He allowed me to use his washing machine. I cooked at night and he would come and eat with us. I washed his clothes, and his trailer. It was like we helped each other mutually. We all ate together outside, it was good.
ML: And you guys communicated how you could?
EM: Yes, he bought a translator, one of those electronic translators that speak and such, and if not we used signs, and we laughed a lot. I should also say these times were tough; I packed my husband’s bags every week to leave. I waited on him with bags packed.
ML: Because you had to stay—
EM: Yes, I stayed—
ML: You stayed by yourself during the day, right?
EM: Yes, completely, without cable. Only one channel or two, those channels I could pick up in the air and I didn’t understand anything, and I had to go to the store—with the little stroller. Little Alberto had—I remember he had a little canopy, and half of his legs were good and brown and the other half white. He would burn on the walk to the supermarket.
ML: What supermarket did you go to?
EM: To BI-LO.
ML: To BI-LO. Around where was the parking lot?
EM: I don’t remember the street—Leeds Avenue, I think.
ML: On Leeds Avenue.
EM: I’m not sure if that was exactly it, but we walked from there to Dorchester. No, from Dorchester to the BI-LO would be like more than—far beyond ten blocks.
ML: And you had to do this alone with—
ML: How did you stay so connected with your family and all of that, to communicate with your mom and your father, with your siblings in Argentina?
EM: We bought those cards; they didn’t last at all in the beginning. Well, we didn’t know, we bought whichever card, and I think we called them once a month.
ML: So you stayed in the house every day packing your bags.
ML: How did Alberto respond to you?
EM: I told Alberto, “Let’s go, please,” and he told me, “No, we can’t go, we have to stick with it, come on, we are already here, I’m already working.” But not me, I didn’t want to stay. I guess, I don’t know. Sometimes we are similar to animals.
ML: What do you mean?
EM: Sometimes the horse—it’s like when the horse neighs and gets surly, and they tame him, it is strong up until he walks, until he adapts.
ML: And you feel like you were tamed? You wanted to jump like a horse and you were tamed?
EM: I think necessity did it.
ML: You say necessity. What were the things that you started to see that affected your family? What did you start putting on the other side of the balance and as you said—tamed you. What were the other things you started to see?
EM: Well it was that little Alberto didn’t lack anything because the diapers were affordable, the milk and everything he needed, he had.